NOTE: Everything in this story is fictitious except the people, the tank, the pumps, the pump procurement procedures, the army, the hydro-statics, etc.
Dear Professor Beecham:
This is an appeal for help; I must know if I’m right in order to maintain my sanity. Much of the responsibility for my difficulty is yours, therefore I feel you have a moral duty to help me in my time of need. After all, I learned almost nothing in Physics 101 and remember even less of it, but one thing I did learn, or think I learned, has backfired and bids fair to ruin my life and my mind as well.
The information, the assurance, I want from you will not change my physical situation but may at least keep me from losing my mind.
Physically, I am now under partial house arrest and am to remain so for an indefinite period. It is illegal, and my commanding officer knows it is illegal but says if I do not observe it, he will have me court-martialed even if it brings him down along with me which he agrees is a likely outcome. He is some kind of sore at me.
You know the old saw, “a little learning is a dangerous thing?” Well, in this outfit any learning is a dangerous thing. Anything beyond the ability to sign the payroll sheet on the right line, and that is learned only through being red lined and not being paid, is dangerous.
In this company there are two college students. I’m the only enlisted one, the other is a warrant officer, a math major from Indiana. More about this idiot later. I should have had enough sense to deny that I’d been in college but I didn’t. How was I to know that’d make me a freak? So “College” became my nickname, and I’ll never hear my real name until I get out of this outfit. Believe me, I have requests in for transfers, but I have little hope of getting one. It’s not too hard to transfer into the infantry, but it is almost impossible to get out of it. At least, the army has that much sense.
Not only am I constantly ridiculed because I went to college but am often referred to as a draft dodger. That’s because I enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted. There is a little justice in the charge because by enlisting I was supposed to be sent to radar school but, as usual, something got fouled up, and I wound up in the infantry. I’m not much surprised. The guy in front of me at one classification interview was named Baker. You know where he went? To baker’s school. Naturally.
I’m straying, I know, but I do get worked up about this sometimes. Perhaps you are wondering what I did to merit the punishment I’m undergoing. So first I’ll tell the bald facts, then I’ll try to explain why I did what I did. I’m sure you’ll see that I was completely justified.
The company has a 9000-gallon diesel fuel tank standing on end on a ten-foot high platform. This tank is filled with water by pumping from a well. It supplies water for four showers – one for the officers and three for the enlisted men.
Two weeks ago at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, I aimed my sub-machine gun at this tank, gently squeezed the trigger, and in less than a second put exactly seventeen holes in the tank. I had a full clip so I must have missed it three times. If that seems odd to you, you’ve never fired one of these choppers. You can miss the side of a barn with them. From inside the barn, even.
What I was actually shooting at was the rubber hose that ran from the pump up the side of the tank into the open top of the tank. I hit it, too, with several of the bullets, but of course the hose didn’t stop the bullets from making holes in the tank.
The noise, not so much of the gun but of the bullets striking the tank, woke the whole company from their Sunday afternoon naps, and they came pouring out of their tents. The tank rang like a huge gong. It was empty because our last pump had just failed. The noise made me wonder what it would sound like to use a machine gun on the big bell, say the Liberty Bell.
Sgt. Farney said, “Gimme the gun.” I handed it over. He took me over to the officers’ compound where our commanding officer was already standing in front of his tent. He explained to the C.O. what I’d done.
“Take the crazy son-of-a-bitch to Division and have him put in the guardhouse,” he told the sergeant. “We will draw up the charges against him tomorrow.”
To me, he said, “You’re going to be in the guardhouse a long time when we’re through with you, College.”
“Uh,” grunted Sgt. Farney, “listen, we better talk this over a little first.”
“What do you mean? You know what happened. Willful destruction of government property. Hell, they’ll throw away the key.”
“Yeah, said Sgt. Farney, “but we got a little problem. What are we doing with that particular government property? You never heard of an infantry company owning a 9000-gallon fuel tank did you? What’s the 57th Early Warning Battalion going to say about us having the tank? Not to mention the damned pumps which belong to the fly boys. We better think about this a bit.”
“You mean to tell me those things are stolen?” the C.O. demanded. “I had no idea.”
“Oh, come on,” said the sergeant, “you didn’t sign for them when you took command, did you?”
“God knows,” said the C.O. “There was so much on the property list I don’t know what I signed for.”
You could see the sergeant thinking that this is what happens to the army when a war’s on and they get officers that wouldn’t make corporal in peacetime. He often made this complaint to other noncoms. “You probably shouldn’t admit that,” he said. “I know damn well the Colonel’s not going to like it if you say it at a court-martial.”
“Who stole the damn tank?” the C.O. demanded.
“I sure don’t know,” said the sergeant, “and if I was you, I sure wouldn’t ask. The less you know about it, the better. It’s much too late to do anything about it.”
The C.O. glared at the sergeant. The C.O.’s smooth cheeks were flushed from anger and frustration while the sergeant’s weather-beaten features showed no emotion to speak of. There may have been in the sergeant’s manner the tiniest suggestion that he was accustomed to instructing and tolerating officers who had no idea how to behave and who were a great trial to the professional, the high ranking noncoms.
In case you are wondering, we did not steal the tank. How could anybody steal a 9000-gallon tank? It is, after all, ten feet in diameter and fifteen feet long. Actually, we traded for it from the guys in the radar battalion. They even helped us load it on a 6×6 truck. We traded three precious fifths of bourbon for the tank, so it was unfair of the sergeant to claim we had stolen it. Of course, it is true that the guys we bought it from probably reported it to be stolen. They had to tell their C.O. something; he is signed out for it.
Now, the pumps were stolen. Fair and square. The technique for getting a pump was this: Three of us in a jeep would cruise alongside the airstrip until we saw an unattended pump. Two of us would run and grab the pump, throw it in the back seat, climb in the jeep, and accelerate as fast as we could, leaving the yelling, fist shaking airplane refueling crew hopelessly outdistanced. The last time we had been located near an airstrip, we had up on these pumps. We had taken four of them.
We needed so many because none of the pumps would operate for long. It may be that a pump meant for gasoline (they were meant to pump gasoline from 55-gallon drums into airplanes) simply does not last long when used for pumping water. I just don’t know; they would work for only about two weeks. In fact that’s what started this whole mess. I had had an idea that might make them last longer, but no one would even try it.
“All right, Sergeant, what is your recommendation?” asked the C.O.
“Company punishment,” said the sergeant.
“Now, you know that’s against regulations in a case like this,” replied the C.O.
“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant.
“All right.” The C.O. turned to me. “You are on KP until further notice. You are under house arrest. Exception for your scheduled work, meals, and latrine visits, you will remain in your tent until further notice. And one more thing. You have got to quit arguing about that water tank. I don’t want to ever hear another word out of you about it. Also, I want you to admit here and now that you were wrong.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“No, that won’t do. I want you to say you were wrong. I want to hear it, and you’d damn well better mean it.”
“Yes, sir, I was wrong,” I said. As he looked away I said softly, “But it still moves.”
“What did you mutter?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“OK,” he said, “now get this. If you foul me up I’ll be in a jam, but it’ll be nothing like yours. You’ll be in the guardhouse till hell freezes over. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
In going over what I’ve written, I see I still have not clearly explained my problem. It began very simply. As we installed the tank and hooked up the hoses, I proposed that we hook the filling hose to a pipe at the bottom of the tank and pump the water in from the bottom.
“No, no,” said Sgt. Millis, a buck sergeant, who is the mechanical genius of our outfit. “That way you’d have to pump against all that water. Fill it from the top.”
I explained carefully that if the tank were filled from the top that all the water had to be lifted ten feet to the tank and fifteen feet along the tank, but if it were filled from the bottom, the average lift above the pump was only 17.5 feet instead of 25 feet.
Sgt. Millis thought that was a good one. “I don’t know what they teach you in college, College, but that’s certainly not common sense. If you fill from the bottom, you have to pump against the whole tank of water, while if you fill from the top, you’re pumping only against the water in the hose. Geez, you don’t need college for that.”
“You’re wrong.” I said. But I didn’t really worry about it. Then when we found that the pumps kept failing, I wanted to use them in filling from the bottom in hopes that if, as it seemed, the pumps were just marginal that it might just be the needed saving effect. No argument I could make, no plea, no appeal would induce Sgt. Millis to let me try it.
As the pumps kept failing, it seemed more and more important to try my scheme. I tried to convince a staff sergeant, a tech sergeant, and the first sergeant with no success at all. I found out that our warrant officer was working on a degree in mathematics so I confidently described the situation to him. “No,” he said, “I’ve not taken any physics, but look, it’s clear that if you fill from the bottom it takes more work because you are pumping against all that water.”
By the time I talked to our commanding officer, I guess I sounded a little irrational. He obviously didn’t understand what I was talking about, but Officers’ Training School teaches them to be decisive so he came instantly, firmly, and irrevocably to the wrong conclusion.
I described thought experiments to Sgt. Millis who, in spite of disagreeing with me, seemed to be the only one who was willing to even discuss the possibility that I was right. I said to him, “Suppose I hook a hose to the bottom pipe and then raise the free end above the water level in the tank. If your claim is true, water will still come gushing out of the hose.
“No, it won’t.” he answered. “Everybody knows that water seeks its own level. That’s got nothing to do with it.”
“But that’s exactly why water seeks its own level,” I replied hopelessly. “Look, if what you say is true, that all the water above pushes back on water entering from below, you couldn’t begin to pump water into the ocean, yet many sewer pipes end in the ocean, and no pumping at all is required.”
“Same thing,” he said, “water seeks its own level, like I said. Listen, College, you’re a good kid even if half the company thinks you’re nuts, but I wish you’d get off this kick. I’m damn sick of hearing about it. Now, how about just knocking it off?”
On that Sunday two weeks ago, I was on KP. I draw a lot of Sunday KP for reasons best known to the duty sergeant. Anyway, the temperature in the cook-tent was a steamy hundred or so, and after finishing the pots and pans I decided a cool shower was just what I needed. The tank was empty so I spent fifteen minutes pulling the rope to start the engine for the pump. Then, although the engine was running full blast, the pump would not draw a drop of water. That was our last pump.
Very calmly I went to my tent, got my sub-machine gun, put a full clip in it, returned to the tank, and I guess that’s about where we came in.
I know exactly how many holes I made in the tank because I had to whittle a plug for each one and drive it in from inside the tank. It’s lucky I didn’t use a rifle or there would have also been exit holes on the other side of the tank.
My house arrest is almost unendurable because I have now read every book available in the camp and have fallen into going over and over the pumping problem. After the first week, doubt began to set in. Now my proposed experiments don’t seem to prove anything. I can no longer trust my reason. To save my sanity, I beg you just to write and tell me whether I’m right or wrong.
James “College” Whittman
P.S. I forgot to mention that they are finally trying my system after all. After they finally got the pump working again, they began filling from the bottom, not because they suddenly believed my argument but because the hose was so cut up by the bullets that the only good piece would not reach the top. I wonder if the guy who said “the pen is mightier than the sword” knew about the Thompson sub-machine gun.
J. “C.” W.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display types are Homewood and Univers. Paper is an abominably transparent 50-lb. offset stock. Published by Jake Warner and 450 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770